Dr Bianca Mkhize-Simelane (below) used to eat the mopane worms her grandmother cooked because she thought they were fun. But when she started earning her own money, she was more than happy to opt for burgers from a popular international franchise instead.

Now she has done a turnaround. A tourism lecturer at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, she recently completed her PhD at North-West University on entomophagy, or eating insects, linking it to tourism and sustainably solving food security and poverty challenges in South Africa.

“The funny thing about human beings is that we do not mind going to a restaurant and eating food from the sea,” she said. These could be crabs, strange creatures with fancy names, or expensive eggs. “At the end of the day, they are insects,” she said. “But the moment we see insects being sold on the streets, we have negative attitudes.”

People might shudder at the thought of eating mopane worms but the industry has an annual turnover of about 1.5 million US dollars in South Africa. Dr Mkhize-Simelane said these caterpillars of the emperor moth generate a lot of money because people do not have to grow them. “Every season you go to a mopane tree and the worms come out before they become butterflies,” she said.

“A lot of people do not want to try them but if you target Asian tourists, that’s where you’re going to make your money,” said Dr Mkhize-Simelane.

She was speaking online at the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Studentpreneurs Indaba 2023, held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in a hybrid format on 4 and 5 September.

EDHE is the programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) administered by Universities South Africa (USAf), which represents the 26 public universities in the country.

Dr Mkhize-Simelane was taking part in a think tank that posed the question: “How might we become business leaders who address global issues such as food security and sustainability?”

Dr Norah Clarke, Director: EDHE at USAf, facilitated the think tank, urging students, in the process, to go and think about the role their businesses could play in addressing and having an impact on global challenges.

Edible insects are rich in minerals

Dr Mkhize-Simelane said her research included looking at ways of marketing edible insects to educate people that they are not as bad as they think they are. Insects have more minerals than beef, chicken or fish, she said. “And they are sustainable. The amount of water and the amount of land you need to grow insects is less compared to the amount of land you need to grow cattle or sheep or goat or any other livestock,” she said.

She said we have a tendency of wanting someone to solve problems for us. People are always waiting for the government to do something, but what are we doing to try and eradicate poverty, and meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

“The question How might we become business leaders who address global issues such as food security and sustainability is really saying: no one is coming to help you. You are supposed to be out there trying to help yourself and others,” she said.

Indigenous insects to be raised as food

Professor Julian May (right), Director at the Department of Science and Innovation- National Research Foundation (DSi-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Food Security at UWC, co-hosted by the University of Pretoria, was another participant in the think tank.

He said one of the first projects the Centre funded concerned alternatives to the insects being bred for food by the University of Stellenbosch. This was the weevils of flies.

“We were trying to find out whether there were indigenous insects we could raise as food, that would be safe to eat,” he said. And they needed alternatives because people did not want to eat flies. He has sampled scorpions, spiders and crickets – something Dr Clarke likened to Fear Factor, the reality TV show in which contestants accept challenges that involve overcoming their fears.

May said the alternative insect project has, 10 years later, spun into a very successful business. “It’s employing a lot of people; it’s making people quite a lot of money,” he said.

Furthermore, two months ago he was in Kenya where people were setting up a fish farm using flies and fly bacteria, that is, the weevils of the flies, as the source of food for tilapia fish. “You’re not necessarily going to eat the insect as a human – you can; there’s nothing wrong with it – but we can feed those insects to things that we are happy to eat,” said May.

“So, the project that took 10 years from when we first started investigating it in Stellenbosch in about 2014, matured in another country in Africa,” he said. “That showed that the kind of research Bianca (Dr Mkhize-Simelane) does, eventually can translate into a livelihood for people in rural areas. “

Use what you have to be sustainable

Dr Fazlyn Petersen (left), Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at UWC, said she believed South Africa had opportunities and not challenges. She said this was about shifting one’s mindset — instead of saying so many things are going wrong, one needed to say: “We have things that are going wrong, but what are we going to be doing to change that?”

She said that is why she liked Dr Mkhize-Simelane’s view that the government is not coming to save you. “Because once we all become better, together, South Africa will change and improve. And the way we do that is start where you are, use what you have, because that, in essence, is sustainability. If your solution is going to require you to continuously receive funding, then that is not something you should be pursuing,” she said.

The triple bottom line

She said when people run their businesses, they address the triple bottom line: profit, people, and the planet. “Those three factors, together, drive a successful and sustainable business. It’s not one or the other. It’s a combination of all three.”

She said part of building a business took tapping into social capital. “The person you are sitting next to could potentially be your future partner, and, together, you could build your triple bottom line,” she said.

Sustainability need not be about big gestures

Dr Elricke Botha (right), Senior Lecturer in Applied Management at the University of South Africa (Unisa), said people know climate change is a big problem but feel that in isolation, they cannot do anything. “That’s a lie. Any step towards sustainability is a step in the right direction.

“It’s not about the big gestures. I can change somebody’s mind about something just by recycling. Once you are forced to recycle products, you start seeing how much waste you are producing.”

Any activity can be turned into tourism

Professor May spoke of how climate change would be affecting wheat production in South Africa, particularly in the Western Cape. Sorghum and millet were two indigenous crops well adapted to the South African climate. They could be grown instead, for bread. “They don’t use as much water, so, they will survive climate change. They can survive heat. They can survive very poor soils. These are good crops to grow if we’re worrying about climate change,” he said.

However, there were technical problems with using them to make bread.

“The problem with making bread from sorghum, which we still haven’t cracked, but we will, is that when you bake bread with too much sorghum it crumbles very easily. So, you must add other kinds of flour. Well, guess what? Bambara beans helps you solve that problem. So, we can put two indigenous plants together and we can solve the problem of bread in South Africa,” said Professor May.

Dr Botha said she would like to add tourists to his scenario, and so build a business. “You won’t believe the things that people want to experience…” She explained that tourists, including South African ones, want to experience something such as indigenous bread-making, and then go back home and do it.

“We have food tourism, we have wine tourism, we have beer tourism…” said Dr Botha, saying that adding sorghum as another aspect to food tourism could create a sideline business for sorghum growing farmers.

“People want to learn new things. Take them through a cooking class on the side as well,” she said, turning to Professor May to conclude: “We should chat”.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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